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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

“Everything melted because of the fire”: Saad Eskander on the reopening of the Iraqi National Library and Archive

Dr. Eskander started his acceptance speech at the British Library on Monday 8th December by describing libraries as “sites of rationalisation, dialogue, creativity, and democracy.” That, he said, is why dictators and invaders destroy them. He specifically talked about the “dehumanising, derationalising and machinising of Iraqi society” that took place under Saddam Hussein, whose political control of academic and cultural institutions compounded the damage to Iraqi national heritage wrought by physical violence in wars and uprisings. As Dr. Eskander explained, the INLA was already compromised as a library before the invasion. Marxist, liberal, Shia and Kurdish publications were moved into a closed room, with no access permitted to researchers. Secret police were planted among the library staff to observe and inform on reading habits. The regime even removed air conditioning and ventilation from the building to dissuade researchers, damaging both papers and people. Librarians’ salaries were set at $2-3 US per month, which encouraged bribery and corruption, as librarians charged researchers for access.

The US army’s solution to the libraries many problems was, as Dr. Eskander pointed out, similar to their solution to Iraq overall: “they destroyed the statue of Saddam [that had stood outside the library], and that solved the problem of Iraq.” By the time the US army was on the scene, the library had been hit by three waves of internal devastation: first, desperate people looking for things to sell, like chairs and electronic equipment; next, professional looters who removed valuable texts that have since, in some cases, reappeared on the international market; and lastly and most devastatingly, arsonists whose use of chemicals that completely destroyed the specific paper archives they targeted indicated that they must have been professional, and probably in the pay of the previous regime.

“Everything melted because of the fire,” including the central staircases. Everything in the library was covered with a thick layer of ash and chemical residue. It had no water, no working equipment and no furniture. The prevailing attitude held that they should destroy the building, and start again with funding from the US. But Dr. Eskander was determined to seize the initiative and reopen the building – without US assistance, as the donors wanted a new building that could be labelled as an American success.

He began by educating his staff, and by asking what they needed, beginning with paper, pens, and basic furniture. He described himself as being like Ali Baba, looting other government buildings for chairs so that they could reopen the main reading room, which happened on 8th July 2004, six months after Dr. Eskander had taken on the job. He sought assistance from European governments, including Italy and the Czech Republic, to get funds to begin the work of reconstruction.

That work began with 65 elderly staff sorting papers, with a focus on the records of the Ba’athist regime, which had been deposited at the library when it was state-controlled. These were declassified and made available to all readers, so that Iraq “could understand its past in a very objective way.” 600-900 readers a year have been making their way to the library, where everything is provided free (including photocopying!), to consult the collections, and the doors remained open as renovations were in progress, and even though the institution was targeted by both sides fighting in Baghdad. “Attacking the National Library is the one thing both sides can agree on.”

No wonder: it sits opposite the Ministry of Defence, where the US and Iraqi armies are now based, and Apaches whir above the building every day. The Iraqi defence force occupied the building in 2007 as a strategic base against insurgents. Dr. Eskander appealed to the government, and his international partners: the soldiers were ordered out, but went with bad grace, smashing up windows. Despite this, and despite disapproval and threats, the INLA has become one of the country’s models of democratic process and equality, including employing a significant majority of trained female staff, who have a significant voice in the union. Not that it was easy: even staff struggled to accept the shift “from a culture of taking orders to a culture of taking initiative,” but Dr. Eskander is committed to providing an institutional model of democracy for the nation.

They are also empowered, through training in contemporary techniques of preservation and conservation, to train other staff, So far, they have – one example – saved and are restoring 836 texts from the collection of Hebrew books seized from the Iraqi Jewish community after denaturalisation orders were issued against the Jews in 1952. The books were subsequently scattered to locations across Iraq, but several were placed in the INLA in the 1990s. Staff were too afraid to look at them, and placed them in a basement, where some were destroyed. Others were burned in 2003, and others still shipped to the US from the basement of the Iraqi Intelligence Agency – the only books that the Americans shipped out.

Controversially, however, the US did also remove Ba’athist archival documents, and Iraqi citizens wanting to know about the fate of family members took others. Political operatives removed yet others to protect their own interests or provide blackmail opportunities: Dr. Eskander has been negotiating for their return, emphasizing that the looters include members of the current Iraqi government, and that he would like to “look after our own house” before pursuing the US. He describes his only power in negotiations as “blackmail, the power to name names,” and the US, he points out they are creating immunity for the Ba’athists. “We need to come to terms with the past, to make reparations.”

The library has assumed the function of a cultural, as well as research centre: while images of Mesopotamian culture are exhibited in the foyer to remind a fragmented society of its shared roots, more contemporary material is exhibited in the gallery in event space, and there is a radio station playing Iraqi music. Dr. Eskander describes his work as not only coming to terms with the past, but reconnecting with a “cultural heritage that includes the liberal Iraq of the 1960s and 1970s. He concludes by saying: “We did not restore the old INLA: we modernised it and democratised it.” As he told Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian in an interview this summer,
"I want to make the library a democratic model of how Iraq should be. From the start I hired Sunnis, Kurds, Shias, women, men. The national library must be a place - perhaps even the most important place - where Iraqis from many different groups come together."

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